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Oxtail Is Gaining Fans. That’s Not Entirely Good.



Oxtail Is Gaining Fans. That’s Not Entirely Good.
Oxtail Is Gaining Fans. That’s Not Entirely Good.

When the chef Lerone Mullin opened the Jerk Grill, his fast-casual restaurant in Redlands, Calif., in 2021, customers told him they loved his Caribbean classics, like brown stew chicken, and his Caribbean-Mexican mash-ups, like a jerk chicken burrito. But they asked for one addition.

“Everybody just wanted oxtail,” he said, adding, “I didn’t even know it was that popular.”

So, inspired by smash burgers, Mr. Mullin created a version that spoke to his Jamaican roots: a burger griddled with sliced onions, topped with a portion of stewed oxtail meat, American cheese and aioli on a toasted hamburger bun.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” he said.

Long a featured ingredient in soups, stews, pastas and braises across the world and in the American South, oxtail was often overlooked in the United States, where it was considered merely a meat byproduct. Now, the cut, stewed until tender, shreddable and unctuous, in the Jamaican-style preparation, is becoming a more common sight on American menus and in food-focused social media posts.

There are the viral oxtail-topped slices of pizza at Cuts & Slices in New York City. In Baltimore, Waiting to Oxtail puts the tender meat into a number of dishes, including birria tacos and chopped cheese. At Crav’n Caribbean in North Carolina, an “oxtail cheesesteak” sub is a signature menu item. Even vegans can’t resist the siren call of a plate: Voxtail, 12 ounces of plant-based oxtail, can be ordered online and shipped for $22. (Gravy, sold separately, is $9.)

“Two years ago, I saw oxtail moving in the same direction as matcha or kale and becoming really popular,” said the chef Osei Blackett, the owner of the Everything Oxtail stalls at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. The chef, known as Picky, estimates that he buys 300 to 400 pounds of oxtail a week for his empanadas and a burrito made with Trinidadian-style roti. “People are always excited when they see my menu of all oxtail,” he said.

But the cut’s rising popularity comes with a downside: Its price has nearly tripled in recent years. The average wholesale price last month was $14.18, compared with $5.99 in April 2015, the first year it was reported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Mullin said that high price has made it difficult to keep the smash burger on the menu. “We’re not a steakhouse, so it’s hard to charge the prices we need to,” he said. At his Jerk Grill, a single oxtail smash burger is $12, while a burger built on two beef patties is $14. But the demand is so high that he can’t imagine not having the oxtail burger on his menu. “It’s a balancing act,” he said.

In Brooklyn, the chef Shorne Benjamin braises his oxtail in red wine and spices it with nutmeg, cinnamon, thyme, rosemary and allspice for the grilled cheese he serves at Fat Fowl. It’s a draw for his customers, he said, but “there’s some sticker shock” when he orders oxtail from his supplier.

According to the U.S.D.A., a number of factors — including higher demand — could have led to the increase. Ariane Daguin, the chief executive of D’Artagnan, a fine-foods purveyor, pointed to the rising popularity of Jamaican and Caribbean restaurants.

Deborah VanTrece, the chef and chief executive of VanTrece Hospitality Group, which includes Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta, where stewed oxtails have been on the menu since it opened in 2016, sees the rise in price as reflecting Americans’ changing tastes and an embrace of Black cooking.

“It warms my heart to see a food I grew up with that had a bad rap now getting love,” she said.

Another reason for the price spike is how oxtail is processed. Each cow yields only about six to eight pounds of the fat-coated tail, typically butchered into thick vertical slices, with lots of bones and collagen. Compared with brisket, which typically amounts to about 29 pounds per cow, that’s not a lot of oxtail to go around.

The rise in price and demand has also led to a flurry of online responses: debates about whether should the cut should be limited (although it’s unclear to whom), and websites selling merchandise declaring “Make Oxtail Cheap Again.” In an attempt to discourage sales, social media users have been fabricating stories about how the cut causes hair loss. Others have jokingly encouraged people to “stay away from oxtail,” claiming that eating it can cause neurological damage.

“Before it was popular, it was a poor-man’s food, like lobster,” said Mr. Benjamin, referring to that ingredient’s rise in America from prison food to delicacy at the beginning of World War II. And as with lobster, its deliciousness is why it’s expensive today.

For Ms. VanTrece, oxtail’s popularity is evidence that there’s hope for other inexpensive cuts of meat.

“There’s a lot of cuts for us to explore that taste as good as oxtails,” she said, mentioning beef cheeks and pork neck, which are similar in flavor and richness. “Well, maybe almost as good.”

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